November 05, 2004

A Quotable Quotidian

The first skill that children acquire when learning their first or any language is listening. Then they learn to imitate and speak. This would leave me to believe that, when trying to learn another language, one should learn first how to listen and speak, then supplement, add on, and finally advance into literacy. The two--communicative skills and literate ability--go hand in hand. Sometimes I wonder why my teachers teach so much (ha!) endlessly complex grammar, for which there is sometimes never a single correct answer. I am often asked about the possibilty of varying sentences in diction, syntax, tense or mood, and my answer is always, "Yeah, you can do that, but it changes the meaning." Then the inevitable follow-up question as to how the meaning has changed is answered with an "I am not exactly sure." This type of ambiguity often frightens me. Is it an indication that I am slowly losing my grip on my mother tongue? Does my time spent living in Japan prevent me from learning anything in English? Sometimes former JETs tell me that I am taking it all in now, that I will learn even more when it "sinks in." But that image of sinking can be seen in a different light, in the present light of my being stuck in the mud--unable to move much either in English or Japanese. My student said to me yesterday, "You are 90% Japanese." A strange compliment, but I don't think I could say, would say, or should say to a n English-speaking Japanese friend in America "You, my friend, are 85% American." Who would want to be (or better yet is) 100% American, escpecially now? Maybe I am too jaded to write about this topic of identity, Perhaps you want to climb through the screen and punch me in the nose, but right now I am worried about the state of language, in any country on this earth. Fr. Aguilar, a friend I made in Nagasaki, said something clear and poignant to me: "We have invented so many new means of communication, but people don't communicate." Is language itself going to soon be merely a shadow of something that used to have features, shapes, dimensions, substance? Am I too idealistic to think that a word ever is something--perhaps the link between mind and matter, an artifact left by the memory in order to maintain a relationship to the world? Soon people will no longer need to remember, or will be unable to remember much because it is all done for them. I can't remember words like "hedonism"--why? because I have been eating out, drinking and watching films too much. As funny as it sounds, I think that Kenneth Burke was right when he said that we are "estranged by our environment by the symbols of our own making (or un-making)." As funny as it doesn't sound, I will always be a symbol maker. May I someday participate in a few moments of communication while it is possible.


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